On Class And Corruption

Ruby is lush, up country South Carolina, population 347 with narrow roads take people from place to place, and where the pace of life is as drawn out as the local dialect. Stock cars are the only things run fast around Ruby, and the races are the most powerful draw for self-identified and proud "country folk." To talk stock cars with fans is to enter into a passionate world of intense connoisseurship, with heroes and villains, intricate details about pit crews and driving strategies, and racing-family blood lines that would have made William Faulkner marvel at the dramatic possibilities.

Shane Ratliff lives in Ruby with his four children and wife, and has lived there all his life. Ruby is not really a town, but rather one of those mirages where the standard joke about blinking and missing the place applies. Shane was a driver too, but took to the 18 wheeler along America's languorous roads rather than the quick-banked oval. Shane is stocky and ruddy-faced, with a dramatic crisp flat top that makes you think military, perhaps Marines if the extra pounds were reapportioned a bit. When he spoke to me he always said "yes sir" after a question, a polite and sure way to acknowledge my advantage in age. When he told his story about driving trucks for Halliburton/KBR in Iraq, the words and sentences were sure and sincere, seductive even, as when he described, in his cautious but open manner, that since working in Iraq he always keeps his left fist clenched around a roll of paper, the one where he held his knife at all times while on the road. He can't help it. The trauma and terror from those roads had literally taken control of part of his body, a corporeal insult carried home courtesy of KBR and a reckless war.

As with almost all of our principle characters in Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers, Robert Greenwald's recent film that I have worked on as a story producer for the last seven months, Shane signed on to go to Iraq mostly "for the money." He's a working class guy. And going to Iraq "for the money" means something different for America's working class, whether soldier or contract worker, than it does for corporate executives who make their bulky share from the comfort of enormous homes in the suburbs of Houston or Washington D.C. Shane wanted to "look out for his kids," to work toward a decent, anxiety-free retirement, to just get a "cushion" for a possible economic free fall. To be a member of America's working class today is to be constantly aware of "incoming" from all directions at once: a health problem that punishes the pocket book as well as the body, the loss of a job that gets at the gut and the head at equal turns, a constant and nagging fear of falling as a way of life. The promises made by Halliburton and friends--easy money, tax-free, learn deep things from the bang-bang--looked good from the lower half of our nation's social pyramid.

This ever-present, and sometimes reckless onging for security is part of America's dirty little secret, namely, that we live in a country with distinct social classes, a fact that provides for profound differences in how people live and die. We live in a country where the politicians and certain intellectuals who demanded this war, and executives from Halliburton, Caci, Blackwater and many others who are the war's enablers, will never, ever, worry about paying a bill, losing a home, taking care of a family health catastrophe, or have to believe that a much better life is just around the corner, perhaps in the bad bet of a lottery ticket, or in a shining white glorious world beyond this one. The wealthy, those with class position and purse, have different concerns than most of us, properly diversifying a stock portfolio perhaps, or what skid to grease to allow for a son or daughter's matriculation at Yale, Harvard, or even, God forbid, Texas A & M. Those who have little patience for such talk about class in America might shrug contemptuously and mutter "free to choose," and point out that these men and women who signed on in Iraq "for the money," possess free will, an opportunity to say yeah or nay, and that nothing more needs to be said.

But that is a tale half told, and told badly. People make choices within a historical and social context. David Lesar, CEO for Halliburton and recipient of $40,000,000 for his services last year alone, might think that personally stepping foot in Iraq to do much of anything would just not be prudent. He makes his tough office decisions with a certain, shall we say, recreational non-chalance, assured that the G & T will be served up and waiting after a round at the up-scale links that dot his Houston suburbs. Shane Ratliff, a median kind of guy with a median Ruby, South Carolina income of 40 k a year, more or less, was "free to choose" without the benefit of Lesar's extra $39,960,000 as a disincentive to "adventuresome" living . And the military itself is largely a job agency for the poor and working poor in the United States, a place to go when there is no place else to go. Some major corporations like Halliburton/KBR, those openly and grotesquely robbing the till in Iraq, have served the same purpose for those working people on the bad side of luck and circumstance; their siren calls are sweet, provided one does not open one's eyes or ears, and agrees to remain lashed to the mast.

Shane Ratliff opened both. What he saw was shocking at first, but approached the banal by the time his stay in Iraq ended. He saw $80,000 dollar trucks left to rot for lack of an oil filter or spare tire. He saw new commercial heaters and air conditioners, thousands of dollars at a shot, thrown into the "burn pit": "They [Halliburton/KBR] just took a lot of nice reusable stuff and just threw it away, is what they done." He saw padded time cards, people paid to do nothing, a usable car buried in the ground. Halliburton in Wonderland. Mad. "That don't make sense either, just to take stuff that costs that much and bury it and do away with it. It don't make sense to me just wasting government money, but that's Halliburton." "But that's Halliburton", a new commercial jingle, that is if there was truth in advertising.

And Shane again: "And big companies will lie to you. Just like some individuals will lie to you. Anything that sounds too good to be true, usually is." But this madness does make sense under a cost-plus contract that guarantees a profit above what is spent. Spend more, waste more, well, you just get paid more. Compassionate conservatism, indeed.

Shane says he was more caring, more loving, before he left for Iraq. I suppose a year in the land of grab, in the culture of greed and grin, with the likes of Halliburton/KBR as a model for virtue and "due diligence," would make anyone slightly jaundiced, slightly whacked in their angle on the world, especially when one is told that crooked lines are really straight, and that the "fog of war" can explain all mistakes and failures. Shane was more loving before he went to work for Halliburton/KBR, and he was also less cynical. Now he looks at his government, and a president he voted for, and wonders just what the hell is wrong with the country. How can corporate freebooters be so thoroughly protected from government oversight, from the care owed to American taxpayers?

The rhetoric coming out of the White House that the war, contrary to the common street wisdom, is actually going well, is an absolute truism. The war is going well for Halliburton/KBR, for Caci, for Titan, for Blackwater, for a host of other companies and their CEO's who were "free to choose," and chose to glutinously feed at the war-time trough. The war is going well. But, as Shane's common wisdom goes, "anything that sounds too good to be true, usually is."

Shane Ratliff is now, in Ruby, fighting to win back his good cheer, trying to settle back in with the normal ebb and flow of baseball games, lake swimming with his children, work and just passing time with the time that is left to him. There are some things that are constant in life, some things that are profoundly disruptive. Three strikes and you're out in baseball is one of the former. War is of the latter. Then there are some things that are guaranteed to break your heart. To see your own people robbed under the cover of patriotic service, that counts as a heart breaker. To have people see the robbery, report it, and have nothing done about it, that counts as a heart breaker. To have traveled to fifteen states, as I have done for Iraq For Sale, and have heard similar stories as those above, told over and over by people who worked for Caci, Halliburton, Titan, from soldiers and civilians who saw, up close, how petty pilfering and grand theft go down, that counts as heart-rending, also.

Bad heartbreaks never heal completely, I don't think, but can only be patched and puttied, and carried on with. But time--history is probably the correct term--can sometimes do good work in a case like this, that is if people, in unison, push for a redress of wrongs, a recalibrating of justice, demand fairness. Iraq, to this point, has been for sale. There is no reason, no reason on earth, to let this go on much longer.